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Poet Katie Donovan: Stephen came home the day before he died and it was hard taking him back to the hospice, he didn’t want to go

Poet Katie Donovan's latest book Off Duty, to be launched in Belfast next week, reflects the heartbreaking loss of her husband Stephen Sensbach who died of throat cancer five years ago. By Malachi O'Doherty.

There are a thousand love stories in which one partner dies young. Think of Love Story itself, which started as Erich Segal's novel and then became a film and a song, a paean to a perfectly intelligent and beautiful young woman who died of cancer.

'Where do I begin', starts the song, 'to tell the story of how great a love can be..?

Poet Katie Donovan (54) has a similar story to tell but she tells it differently.

She was a journalist on the Irish Times and a published poet and her relationship with the talented American cellist Stephen Sensbach started when his publisher invited her to dinner to meet him.

Stephen played for the National Symphony Orchestra and had just published a book on French cello sonatas.

There were already soft echoes of Erich Segal's classic novel. Oliver Barrett, had been to Harvard, Katie had studied at Berkeley. Jenny Cavilleri had been the musician in the novel. Stephen was the musician in Katie's story, recounted in her latest poetry collection, Off Duty.

And it was Stephen, the musician, who would die of cancer.

"I just happened to get chatting to Stephen and we clicked. Later our friends said they had sort of 'set us up'."

They moved quickly.

She says: "We decided we were both middle aged and didn't have an awful lot of time to faff around about whether we'd have a family or not so quite quickly, about two years after we met, our daughter Phoebe was born and then two-and-a-half years later our son Felix arrived."

During her first pregnancy she left the Irish Times and sustained herself with a mix of teaching and practising a form of Japanese physiotherapy called Amatsu.

They lived in a tower.

"It's an old mews in Dalkey, tall and thin, buffeted by winds and has a great view."

They converted a barn so that they had separate working spaces.

Then Katie's father died, a little after Felix was born, and a little while later, Stephen was diagnosed with throat cancer.

He went to Heidelberg in Germany for treatment, expecting better outcomes there than he might have got in Ireland. He believed he had a better chance of saving his salivary gland.

"It was difficult for him. He was there on his own," recalls Katie. "We just went over to visit. He became very thin and lost part of his hearing which never came back and he found it difficult to eat."

But he was given the all clear.

"It took him months to regain his weight and get back to his old self. There was a great sense of we've had this great reprieve, we can get on with our lovely life and we had about a year and then it was clear that the cancer was back.

"He tried for different complementary therapies and remedies but then he had a haemorrhage, quite a bad bleed from his throat which scared him.

"His surgeon said, you really need to have surgery; you need to have this thing out. Which he did. And again that was very rigorous, a long operation that lasted 12 hours."

They had faced the fear that he might die on the operating table.

"He made it through," she adds. "But there was a longer process of recuperation after this one. He couldn't speak for quite a long time. And he had a huge scar. He had had some of his teeth removed. And he slowly again became the person he wanted to be and not an invalid any more. It just took longer this time and he was, in his personality, scarred by the experience. He really retreated into his own shell and then a year later he got the terrible news that the cancer had returned again."

She explains: "All this time I was writing poems, initially poems of delight at having a young family and this new phase in my life and then poems about this difficult journey I was going through with him."

Those are the poems which have been published as Off Duty. They are candid poems about the difficulty of caring for a dying partner while caring for children and keeping a household together.

"They are also about the reality of falling out of love with Stephen while he was dying.

"I had always had this idea that I would find my big romance and certainly after having two children the idea of a big romance changes to being parents and having a lot of responsibility so you have to adapt to a more everyday type of relationship, which I think in itself is quite a challenge.

"We were meeting that challenge but then the illness put a huge strain on that sense of it being a man woman relationship and it became more that I was the carer and he was the one who was trying desperately to stay well."

She says Stephen withdrew from the children "which I found heartbreaking because, to me they were everything. And yet, I didn't know what it was like to be dying".

When caring for him became difficult and fearful, Katie persuaded Stephen to go into the hospice for two weeks.

"At this point he had one last phase of palliative chemo that hadn't done more than just maybe stop the tumours growing. There were several tumours at this stage, one of them a very large open neck tumour which smelled very bad and needed daily dressing.

"And after he came out of that two-week stint at the hospice we just couldn't function at home any more.

"It was too frightening for me. There was a chance that he could haemorrhage at any moment and bleed out, in our home where we had two small children.

"So eventually he went back to the hospice and he stayed there for the final five weeks of his life and had a stable, contented period where he didn't feel like he was dying."

She says their relationship had become one in which, "I had to really dig deep to have compassion for him, and that is what he needed, simple compassion".

Katie says: "All I could think of was cancer when I looked at him.

"It wasn't really until after he died that I began to recover some of the happier memories of our early time together."

She knows that this is not how such tragedies are often recounted in fiction. "I don't go along with the soaring violins and the thought that this can be in anyway romantic in a relationship with someone who has a terminal disease, like in some Hollywood movies. The Fault In Our Stars is the most recent one."

She points out: "He was difficult. He wouldn't address the fact that he was ill. Even when he was in the hospice he wouldn't countenance any talk of him dying. He wouldn't speak to the children about what was going to happen so that was all on me."

She told Phoebe and Felix that their father would soon be dead. The hospice helped. A psychotherapist got them to do art therapy. She helped them get used to the idea.

"I felt at the end that romantic love had gone but there was deep compassion there. I was still able to give him a foot rub every day, which was what he liked.

"I was still able to take his hand the last time I brought him to the hospice. He had a day out, the day before he died. He came to the house. It was just into the new year and we still had a Christmas tree and he sat by the tree and the fire and had the afternoon at home with us.

"And then it was hard to bring him back to the hospice. He didn't want to go. But I held his hand and somehow we made it across the threshold and the next day the dying process began."

Katie adds, heartbreaking though it was, Stephen, now 57, was philosophical. "He was ready, and to be brutally honest, I was ready too because I had done everything I could and I had nothing left to give."

  • Off Duty, £9.95, by Katie Donovan is published by Bloodaxe Books and will be launched in Belfast at No Alibis Bookshop, Botanic Avenue, on November 17 at 6.30pm

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